First Published: October 28, 2021 | Last Updated: October 28, 2021

The gist: The word "burnout" is thrown around a lot these days, but how well do you really understand it? 🤔 This guide will help you understand what it is, why it happens, and how to fix burnout when you're neurodivergent.

The word "burnout" is thrown around a lot these days, but how well do you really understand it? 🤔

As glad as I am that society is at a point where we talk about burnout openly and often, this also brings up a few problems that don't necessarily help the burnout crisis our society is in.

Mainly, when anything becomes as widely talked about at burnout is, the definition tends to get a little lost in the noise.

So now, there's a lot of stuff that we call burnout...isn't actually burnout. 😬

For example, burnout and exhaustion are often used synonymously. And while they are similar, they're not the same.

Why does this matter? Why do I care about nitpicky semantics?

Because different problems require different solutions.

In order to recover from and prevent burnout, we need to understand what it actually is. As well as what it isn't.

So that's what this post aims to help with.

It should have everything you need to know to truly understand what burnout is as a concept, when you're experiencing it, and how to recover.

What is Burnout?

Burnout was first coined in 1975 by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who defined it by:

  • Emotional exhaustion...I think we all know what that is and how it feels 😩
  • Depersonalization, or when you feel detached from your sense of self
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment, or undervaluing your own work and accomplishments

Originally, the term burnout was only used to talk about the experience of caregiving or "helping" professions.

But thankfully, since then the definition has expanded as psychology has understood how many other people (like...literally everyone) can be susceptible to the experience.

First, the discussion expanded to talk about professional work in general.

For example, the WHO officially recognizes it as an "occupational phenomenon" present in most jobs with chronic workplace stress. Their definition describes burnout similarly to Freudenberger, with characteristics like:

  • Rapid energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Feeling detached from or skeptical about your work
  • Reduced efficacy and increased errors

Where the definition still falls short, in my (humble) opinion, in its looking at burnout at strictly a workplace thing.

Again, thankfully, in the past few years, more people are realizing that work isn't the only cause of burnout.

As the book Burnout explains, any chronic stressor can burn you out if the stress is intense enough for long enough.

It's not just about jobs, it's about all the different ways we're required to work and labor for our existence.

And it's important to recognize that.

Specifically, it's important to recognize the ways being marginalized in your society can cause or exacerbate burnout, which Burnout focuses on.

For example, being neurodivergent in a neurotypical and ableist society can be a chronic stressor itself.

And that's what we're going to talk about today: dealing with burnout when you have ADHD, autism, OCD, etc.

(I have those 3, among other chronic health issues, which greatly played into my own burnout history.)

How Burnout's Different When You're Neurodivergent

In one of my favorite books, How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell talks about a phenomenon called "Stanford Duck Syndrome."

It refers to how ducks might seem calm or placid when you see the tops of their bodies floating on top of the water, but they're feverishly paddling below the surface.

""Stanford duck syndrome." This phrase, which imagines students as placid-seeming ducks paddling strenuously beneath the water, is essentially a joke about isolated struggle in an atmosphere obsessed with performance." - How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell

The name comes from describing Stanford students and its "grind or die culture." But when I first read the description, it fit my entire life as a neurodivergent human.

When you're neurodivergent, it can feel like you spend your whole life feverishly paddling just to stay above water, just to keep up with the neurotypical pace of life around you.

And we can only paddle for so long before we fall under water for a bit.

That's when we experience neurodivergent burnout.

And this can be different from how neurotypical people experience burnout, in both the lead up and the recovery.

First of all, neurodivergent people are more prone to the stress, anxiety, and depression, that lead to burnout.

So we may burn out more easily and more often.

Second of all, how we cope with burnout can be different. We might experience things like:

  • Changes in everyday symptoms
  • Regression in interests or communication
  • More frequent stimming
  • Craving more or less routine

It can also be harder to identify what we're feeling as burnout, since interoception can block that understanding.

Plus, with how common comorbidities are, a lot of us deal with chronic physical or mental illness too.

Those also exacerbate and are exacerbated by burnout.

It's all a cruel, vicious cycle. 🙈

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What Causes Neurodivergent Burnout

In general, burnout happens after getting stuck in a stress cycle, which I talk about more in my book summary of Burnout.

This is when we're experiencing more stress than we are things that help us cope with that stress.

Most of us have a LOT of piled up stress inside of us. And every now and then, we buckle under that weight.

More specifically, that stress is caused by things like:

  • Working in ways misaligned to our strengths
  • Overwork and workplace exploitation
  • Having to juggle too many responsibilities with too little assistance
  • Dealing with abuse or discrimination on top of everything else listed

And that's just for people in general.

For neurodivergent people, some additional causes of burnout include:

  • Disruption to routine (as much as us ADHD peeps might hate it, it really is good for us)
  • Frequent masking (which can make any activity exponentially more draining)
  • Lack of accommodations at school or work
  • Ableism...which really encompasses the masking and accommodations stuff too

The 12 Stages of Burnout

An additional factor making burnout confusing is that it's not a switch that all the sudden turns on and off. It's more of a slide, or a roller coaster will hills and loops.

That can make identifying it especially frustrating.

Remember Freudenberger from earlier?

He and fellow psychologist Gail North have outlined a 12-stage model of burnout that depicts the slide from "fresh and unburnt" to "burnt to ash."

The different stages are:

  1. Feeling the compulsive need to prove yourself and your worth.
  2. This leads to working harder and more in order to do so.
  3. That makes it easier for you to neglect personal needs like sleep, nutrition, and relaxation, as well as to...
  4. Dismiss and dissociate from your problems, sometimes by...
  5. Temporarily revising your core values to justify focusing more on work (or whatever's burning you out).
  6. Of course, you also deny any of this is going on, so you don't have to face it.
  7. If necessary, you'll withdraw from non-work areas of life to make denial easier.
  8. You might also make odd changes in behavior to accommodate work and your "new" values
  9. Eventually, you may depersonalize and no longer perceive your own core needs
  10. You might also feel inner emptiness, that you try to compensate for by exaggerating or "going harder" with certain activities
  11. When all else fails, the depression hits.
  12. Left undealt with, depression compounds with everything else until you hit mental and/or physical collapse.

It can be a rough ride down that slippery slide.

It might also be more of a loopy trip, going from stage 1 to 5 to 8 back to 3, before really FEELING burnt out. With interoception, you might not notice it at all. 🎢

But not feeling it doesn't mean it's not happening.

Thankfully, when we better understand burnout and what causes it, we can also create toolkits for ourselves to deal with it.

Those can serve as stopgaps for the slide, preventing us from falling any further towards collapse.

Reduce burnout with a self-care action plan

Creating a plan for your daily and weekly self-care will help you get proactive about rest and burn out less often. For help creating your own plan, download our free worksheet.

How to Recover From Neurodivergent Burnout

Recovering from burnout is simple, but not easy.

It's all about rest and taking breaks from what got you stuck in the stress cycle to begin with.

That way, you complete the cycle you're stuck in and avoid getting stuck in another.

Complete the Stress Cycle

Some short-term activities to complete the cycle are:

  • Physical activity
  • Casual but friendly social interaction
  • Laughter and affection
  • Crying
  • Creative expression

What doesn't work is toxic positivity, like suppressing the emotion or telling yourself you're okay.

I personally find journaling, dancing, and watching sitcoms to be my favorite ways to complete the cycle.

Rest to Restore Your Energy

Stressful work can be drain you of energy more than usual.

The stress it causes drains you further.

And unfortunately, even completing the stress cycle can take more energy.

It's all a lot of energy depletion at a time when you have little to begin with.

The only way to get it back is to rest. And I'm talking deliberate, intentional rest.

Which category of rest to prioritize depends on your burnout situation. But it's definitely going to take more than one night on the couch followed by a good night's sleep.

It will take LOTS of good nights' sleep, along with spending time on more restful activities when you're awake.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang talks about in the book Rest, there are four main components that make an activity restful:

  • Relaxation, or "a state of low activation and increased positive effect."
  • Control over your own time, energy, and attention.
  • Mastery experiences, or engaging in rewarding things you're good at.
  • Detachment, or leaving work mentally, in addition to physically.

And I guarantee you: it will take more rest than you think you need. It will take longer than you first realized. You'll want to be patient with yourself.

Take a Proactive Approach to Self-Care

Once you've recovered from one bout of burnout, you want to prevent others from happening in the future.

While eliminating burnout completely might not be realistic for most of us, decreasing its frequency is. Over the past 5 years, I've gone from experiencing bad burnout about once a quarter to about once a year.

How did I do it?

By moving from a reactive approach to self-care to a proactive one.

A reactive self-care approach is when you only rest or tend to other self-care needs in reaction to something else.

Maybe it's that you've "earned it" by being productive enough (whatever that means). Or you've burnt out so hard you can't deny your need for it until the next "earn it" milestone.

A proactive self-care approach, however, is resting before you need to.

Viewing rest and self-care as part of your everyday routines and habits.

That means things like:

  • Practicing self-care habits every day
  • Defining and enforcing boundaries around your work and activity
  • Managing your energy carefully

You can even use our self-care action plan worksheet to help you shift into this proactive approach.

Final Tip: Go Easy On Yourself

When you understand burnout better, it can be easy to blame yourself for past burnouts because you now see how and why they happened with more clarity than before.

But shame is not a self-care strategy.

It will only make things worse.

Try to practice patience, self-compassion, and self-awareness throughout the process and things will come more naturally in the future.

Reduce burnout with a self-care action plan

Creating a plan for your daily and weekly self-care will help you get proactive about rest and burn out less often. For help creating your own plan, download our free worksheet.

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